“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” –Kate Chopin, The Awakening
In 1899, author Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening challenged moral and societal conventions imposed upon women in the radical (at the time) story of Edna Pontellier, a respectable married woman who experiences a self-awakening when she falls in love and carries on an adulterous affair. Classic literature spoiler alert! She eventually commits suicide over the futility of it. Several of The Knick’s characters similarly push against the mores of that same era. The suicide of Christiansen, who returns in flashback to educate Thackery about the machinations of hospital politics and finances, here serves as the cautionary tale against faulty enlightenment.
Each featured character in “Mr. Paris Shoes” at some point acknowledges his or her own flaws, pains, or difficulties, and each seeks some type of resolution: Edwards forestalls his imminent existential crisis by creating a secret health clinic in the basement for black patients; Thackery has a vaguely menacing chat with comely and vulnerable nurse Elkins; Cornelia puts her foot down about troubles with the electrification of the hospital; her bold stand, however, is undermined by hospital administrator Barrow’s shady dealings that require him to confront his demons as well.
Two episodes in, The Knick must prove to the audience why we should care about these characters and their challenges. So far the Cinemax show has received critical acclaim on par with Boardwalk Empire and Gangs of New York (ignoring Leo’s accent). But in a TV landscape that is populated with a fantastical universe like HBO’s juggernaut Game of Thrones or historical science fiction like promising Starz series Outlander, can these Knick characters hold up? “Mr. Paris Shoes” indicates yes—the flood lamps are turned on the players, exposing soft underbellies, torn seams, and frayed edges, as standout conflicts slowly emerge and present themselves as full-on personal battles.
Algernon Edwards: “Mr. Paris Shoes” himself is now the deputy chief of surgery at Knickerbocker Hospital—and more importantly the only black employee. Now that NYC is his home, he lives in a tenderloin district boarding house, where a cockroach—and no one else—is eager to make friends. Among the other residents, Edwards gets the “Who do you think you are?” treatment—a question that Edwards grows increasingly weary of having to answer, especially since he has to present a different version of himself to nearly every person he encounters. To his boss, he has to be the very best surgeon Thackery has ever worked with in order to turn the man colorblind, which promises to be a long haul given that Thackery only assigns him the most menial tasks. To his other colleagues, he must be the invisible man. To his benefactor, Cornelia Robertson, he must rise above the rabble. To his patients, he must be the healer (his most natural state). And to this co-resident, he must be more like every other troubled soul in this flophouse—in other words, not so “uppity,” but those Paris shoes of his aren’t helping.
NEXT: Thackery counsels the ladies